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Obama Delivers ‘Intensely Personal’ Tucson Speech

January 12, 2011 at 6:16 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Now for some perspective on the president’s speech and tonight’s memorial event, we get that from historians Ellen Fitzpatrick and Michael Beschloss; Kari Watkins, the executive director of the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum, and the Reverend Janet Vincent, who’s rector of St. Columbus Episcopal Church here in Washington.

Michael Beschloss, did the president do what he needed to do tonight?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, historian: I thought it was one of the best speeches he’s ever given. Not only the message, which was to pull the redeeming things out of this horrible episode, but also the way he really sort of came to life while giving it. He was sort of soaking in the atmosphere, and you had the sense it was a speech written in advance, but it gave the sense of someone who was giving it extemporaneously.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, how did that kind of speech compare to the kinds of speech we’ve seen presidents give in these situations before?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, historian: I thought that this speech was a particularly personal speech on the president’s part, in which — it was a little different, I think, than other speeches. It was intensely personal, evoking the lives of the victims of this tragedy, describing the heroism of everyday Americans, and the theme of children. This, after all, is a young father. We’ve seen him with his own children. And it was a very powerful theme, I thought, and an effective one in the speech.

GWEN IFILL: Kari Watkins, you were at the speech that Bill Clinton gave after the Oklahoma City tragedy, and so you’ve kind of been through this whole issue of how one deals with the aftermath of kind of public mourning. How did this speech ring for you tonight?

KARI WATKINS, executive director, Oklahoma City National Memorial and Museum: Well, I think President Obama spoke on three things that we try to teach at the memorial every day — remembrance, respect and responsibility. And while you want to remember what’s happened and honor that, you still want to encourage people to respect each other and to watch what we say, and that we each have a sense of responsibility. And that sense of community and heroism came out when he talks about responsibility.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Vincent, when we hear about these speeches, we always have high hopes for them. We hope they’ll make us feel better. We hope that we’ll be able to heal. We hope that there will be closure. Was the speech designed to do any of those things? And did it accomplish any of them?

REV. JANE VINCENT, St. Columbus Episcopal Church: Yes, I think it was very effective, and I think what I most resonated with was his saying that our nature is to want to make sense out of chaos, and in this case, we can’t make sense out of it. And I think he helps us on our way to healing in acknowledging that.

GWEN IFILL: Michael, the other interesting thing he talked about was the pettiness that drifts away with the next news cycle, and he made this appeal across I guess you could call them party lines for this kind of reflection, this reflection moment. Was that also essential tonight?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Yes, and it was essential to him, you know. He talks a lot in private about cable TV, which is shorthand for a discourse where people benefit from conflict and saying the other side is horrible, you know, and saying, you know, the other saying that you’re — this escalates.

His whole point has been this whole presidency and through his campaign was to try to break the cycle and make this a better country, and I think he’s using this episode to try to do that.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, I want to read to you something else he said. He asked for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not wounds. How did that — how did that strike you?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I thought that was a wonderful comment. It was really a sign of what we expect from our president, that is what a leader does in a time of crisis and division and tragedy is to reduce, not heighten tensions. And I thought by his example, the way he described the humanity of all of the people involved in this tragic event, that he showed by the way he spoke and what he asked Americans to do. He led by his own example in a very powerful way.

GWEN IFILL: Kari Watkins, the only other — the other thing that struck me is when he talked about expanding our moral imaginations. I imagine that’s part of what you also have to do in the aftermath of a tragedy like that in a community that has to live with the remembrance of it.

KARI WATKINS: Well, you do. I mean, the remembrance is the hard part. You know, it would be easier to just move on and forget it and go about with our lives. And the word hope, I mean sometimes it really is a four-letter word.

Tonight in Tucson, Arizona, there are many people who don’t understand hope. There is no hope because they’re burying their young daughter or they are burying their mother or their father. So that’s something that develops over time, and that you have to grow with as a community and you have to find the very good in the very worst.

There is a line in our mission statement at the Oklahoma City National Memorial that says, “to remember the horror of the tragedy but the tenderness of the response.” And I think that’s so important when you look at the moral obligations of a community.

GWEN IFILL: Reverend Vincent, one of the things that was very interesting about this, we saw a lot of cheering in the stadium. We saw a lot of — we heard babies crying. There is something about the communal sharing of grief in moments like this. It’s not always the way we imagine it to be. Sometimes it felt a little raucous.

REV. JANE VINCENT: Right.

GWEN IFILL: What was that — how did that…

REV. JANE VINCENT: It felt a little raucous to me as well, and I think it’s people reacting in a way that they felt ready to react. Some with laughter. I’m sure some were crying. We didn’t see those shots very much, but I’m sure there was every range of emotion in that crowd this evening.

GWEN IFILL: So, Michael Beschloss, how important was it that the president seize this particular moment, and did he do it?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You know, Franklin Roosevelt said the presidency sees above all a place of moral leadership. That’s what he did tonight. He said, all right, let’s look at the way this country is now, but let’s look at how it can be better and the kind of country that really cause the people who behaved so wonderfully at the time of this episode to be there.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, you get the final say on that as well. Did he seize the moment that he needed to seize?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: I do. I think that this terrible, terrible event in fact gave Barack Obama the opportunities to do something he does very well, which is to show through his own example his equilibrium, his calmness, the way forward for Americans, and to give them something important to think about and to do, to examine their own lives and how they might treat their fellow men and woman and their children with greater decency and love.

GWEN IFILL: Ellen Fitzpatrick, Michael Beschloss, Janet Vincent from here in Washington at St. Columbus and Kari Watkins in Oklahoma City, thank you all so very much.